LOS ANGELES — In February, Robert A. Iger stepped down as Disney’s chief executive and became executive chairman, saying he would decamp entirely in 2021. But he saw himself as having one final task. “I want to make sure that our creative pipelines are vibrant,” Mr. Iger said in an interview at the time. “That is very, very important, especially as we roll out Disney+ around the world.”
On Thursday, as part of a four-hour investor presentation focused on the future of Disney’s streaming business, Wall Street got a sense of what Mr. Iger was talking about. Never have Disney’s content engines been turbocharged like this.
In the coming years, 15 movies will be released directly on Disney+, including the live-action films “Pinocchio” and “Peter Pan & Wendy.” The company also said it was working on 10 “Star Wars” series for Disney+, along with more than a dozen shows from Pixar and Marvel.
Disney disclosed that its flagship streaming service had 87 million subscribers as of Thursday, nearing the high end of its initial five-year goal after only a year in operation. Disney+ has benefited from a low monthly price ($7), a smash hit (“The Mandalorian”) and the coronavirus pandemic, which has prompted Disney to reroute theatrical releases like “Hamilton” to the service and created spiking demand from homebound consumers.
Wall Street has started to value Disney less as an old-line entertainment company with challenged businesses (traditional television networks in secular decline, theme parks closed or operating with coronavirus-forced capacity restrictions) and more of a streaming colossus in the making. Disney shares reached $159 in after-hours trading on Thursday, an all-time high.
The out-of-the-gate success of Disney+ has generated much of the excitement. Many analysts initially thought it would be lucky to achieve 55 million subscribers within five years. Having missed the mark in such epic fashion, Wall Street is now more willing to give Disney the benefit of the doubt.
But daunting challenges lie ahead. Building streaming services is monstrously expensive, and Disney now has four: Disney+, Hulu (39 million subscribers), ESPN+ (11.5 million) and Star+, an overseas version of Hulu that will roll out in Latin America in the coming months. Losses in Disney’s direct-to-consumer division totaled $2.8 billion in the company’s 2020 fiscal year. The company has given up billions of dollars in licensing fees as it has amassed library content on Disney+ rather than selling to outside companies like Netflix.
Disney also faces an increasingly competitive streaming environment. HBO Max, CBS All Access (soon to be renamed Paramount+), Peacock, Apple TV+ and the recently announced Discovery+ are determined to make inroads. Netflix and Amazon continue to pour billions of dollars a year into original programming.
A large part of the presentation was dedicated to Star+, which will be stocked with programming from Disney properties like ABC, FX, Freeform, Searchlight and 20th Century Studios, which Rupert Murdoch sold to Disney last year. In Latin America, Star+ will roll out as a stand-alone service in June and also include some ESPN coverage of sporting events. In Europe, Canada, Australia and several other markets, Star+ will be integrated directly into Disney+, which will add a large amount of more mature programming to the service (“Deadpool 2,” the “Family Guy” cartoon series), allowing Disney to reach an audience far beyond families. The addition of a Star channel inside Disney+ will also justify a price increase of roughly 28 percent, or about $11 a month.
Disney also discussed its evolving approach to movie distribution. The coronavirus pandemic has forced Disney and other studios to push back the releases of big-budget films — more than half of the cinemas in the United States are closed — and reroute others to streaming services. In September, Disney debuted “Mulan” on Disney+ as part of a “premium access” experiment, charging subscribers $30 for indefinite access. “Soul,” the latest Pixar film, will arrive on Disney+ on Christmas Day for no additional cost.
Disney said that some movies would continue to arrive in theaters for an exclusive play period. Others will follow the “Mulan” model; a coming animated film, “Raya and the Last Dragon,” for instance, will be made available on Disney+ in March for a premium price.
Citing the pandemic, WarnerMedia last week shifted 17 coming Warner Bros. movies to a hybrid release model — simultaneous arrival on HBO Max and in theaters — even though some of the films (“Dune,” “The Matrix 4”) are not scheduled to arrive until the fourth quarter, long after vaccines are expected to be deployed. The surprise move prompted blowback from WarnerMedia talent, who felt betrayed and stand to receive considerably lower paydays.